“What sorts of things do you read?” people ask me, when they find out that reading is almost my only hobby. “Almost anything,” I tell them. “All sorts. Horror, romance, literary fiction, mysteries, religion, biography, history, psychology, science writing. Well — I don’t usually read much self-help.” And I laugh a little.
So I didn’t think I would like 7: An Experimental Mutiny Against Excess, by Jen Hatmaker — it’s part of a genre I don’t enjoy and normally think is too prescriptive (rules for everyone!) when almost everyone can usefully live their own lives without much interference. It had another couple of strikes against it, too. I find books telling me how to declutter and tidy up annoying. (The recent The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing is an excellent example of a book I wanted to throw across the room, thereby creating more mess.) Hatmaker also speaks the language of evangelical Christians, which I assumed I would find preachy and irritating. I’m a Christian, but from a different tradition. Surely her ideas about excess would not match mine.
Imagine my surprise when I was so engaged in this book that I dropped almost everything for an entire weekend to finish it. This is not a book telling you what you should do. It’s a book telling you what Hatmaker (and sometimes her family and friends along with her) did about their strong sense of global and domestic poverty, and how it affected them, and why. The results are surprisingly funny, moving, unfussy, and self-aware.
Hatmaker, disgusted and shocked by American excess in the face of horrifying and heartbreaking global need, decided to take on a different project of reduction and fasting for each of 7 months. She ate only seven foods for a month: chicken, eggs, spinach, avocado, apples, sweet potatoes, and whole wheat bread. (Olive oil, salt, and pepper were allowed for cooking.) She wore only seven items of clothing for a month: a short-sleeved T-shirt, a long-sleeved T-shirt, tw0 pairs of shoes that counted as one, two pairs of pants, and a dress shirt. This, for someone who has numerous speaking engagements in any given month. (Underwear didn’t count.) During this particular month, she came to terms with the hundreds and hundreds of unworn items in her closet, and gave them away — but knew there was more reduction, learning, and humility to come.
Perhaps the month I was most bemused by — but enjoyed reading about the most — was the month about waste. Hatmaker lives in Austin, Texas, but like many conservative evangelical families, has never seen the need to use the resources available in her community to help the earth. She barely knew what those green bins by her curbside were for. During this month, she made every single possible effort, not only to recycle, not only to compost, but to build a garden in her back yard, partially staffed by formerly homeless families in her community. She learned about why it is important to love the earth, and to use it in a way that sees it as the wonder of creation. She created a family in Austin that worked together to give something back to the environment. This, to me, was the most permanently transformational month for Hatmaker and her family, though other months spoke more to human global need and intercultural humility. We can all do no other than our utmost before our planet.
This book was about far more than organizing your life, or about tidying up. And its language and reach are about far more than a single point of view, whether Christian or not. Hatmaker is funny and wise, humble and kind — but in the end, she is rebelling against the Western way of life that tells us that buying beautiful apothecary jars and bins from the Container Store to put our things in will solve our problems. In fact, this will leave people around the world — and in our own country! — as hungry as they ever were, and as much in need of love as well as food. Only radical change in our own lives will change this. Hatmaker chose the seven places in her own life that she thought were places of excess, from food to media, from the environment to spending — but she doesn’t prescribe that for you. She wants you to think about your own life, your own excess, your own seven. And help solve the problems of the world. Because if she can — and she believes she can — you can, too.